Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Vaguaries of Contractors and Water

Why is it, that I can find something to be so clear and straight-forward when I'm operating professionally as an architect, only to have it turn all vague and uncertain when I'm acting for myself as a homeowner? Why can't I openly dispute the pronouncements of contractor-estimators-experts when it concerns my own dwelling?

Why does everything these guys say sound so reasonable when they're talking to me and so "hey, wait a minute!" when they go?

As I said in my post-before-last, last March an estimator from Dessicators, Ltd.* came out to look at my damp basement. He said it needed serious work. New drain on the outside, new drain in a trench on the inside, sump pump, massive dehumidifier, and vinyl wall board over the brick walls. He mapped out how it would all work together to keep my basement mold-free and dry. I balked at the price and I balked at the wall vinyl-- otherwise, it seemed very reasonable.

Then yesterday, the estimator from Dry-as-a-Bone Contracting* came over. He prescribed an interior trench drain and a sump pump, with weep holes, stabilizing rods, and acid neutralizer for my mortar and brick. That, too, sounded very reasonable. And the price seemed reasonable, too.

But afterwards, I got to wondering. I checked out foundation drain details in Architectural Graphic Standards, and they didn't tally with the assumptions my waterproofing estimators were making. But maybe they know the houses around here weren't built that way? Who was I to argue with them?

And I couldn't quite suss where the water would come from that would be running into the new interior drains. But dammit, the DBC guy is the expert, and if he said there was enough moisture in my brick foundation to need a drain, I supposed there must be.

So when the rep from Ted's Rilly-Dri Basement Company* arrived earlier this afternoon, I expected to hear the same diagnosis; the only difference would be in the proprietorial system recommended to cure the problem. And maybe in the cost.

I take the Ted's estimator down the basement. He looks around, and asks, "Do you ever get any running or standing water down here?"


"You don't need our services. Our system is designed to remediate running or standing water. You don't have that. What you've got is caused by high humidity."

Now, I do run a dehumidifier down there, and today it's going full blast with a relative humidity reading of 41%.

And the walls, even the moldy ones, were dry.

But in the high summer, full revs on the dehumidifier can't get the level below 55%, and that's when I notice the moisture, efflorescence, and mold.

"That's your problem. The humidity gets into the joints and the paint and makes it swell up and fall off like that. Otherwise, you've got a great dry basement. A lot of much newer homes look a lot worse than this."

I told the Ted's estimator what the first company's rep had told me, without identifying the firm by name.

"Oh, that'd be Dessicators, Ltd., right? They make me so mad! If your roof was leaking, they'd tell you your basement needed waterproofed." He told me a story of an old couple in a nearby town, whom the Dessicators rep had told they needed 48 new piers jacked in under their foundation, at $1,000 a pier (the house was worth only $65,000). "They're a rip-off."

I didn't say much about the company whose estimator came out yesterday. I think that guy was used to thinking in a certain way and sincerely believed the interior drain was the way to go. As in, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But the Ted's guy reiterated that there was no waterproofing work for them to do in my basement-- it didn't need it. What I need, he said, is a second dehumidifier, especially in my smelly workshop under the converted front porch. If I wanted, they could install me a heavy-duty dehumidifying/air cleaning system, but that'd be as much to clear out the pet hair as for keeping the basement dry.

This sounds reasonable. Really reasonable, for a change.

So on the theory that you try the least invasive measures first, I'll try upping the dehumidification first. It's the least expensive, and if it doesn't work, I can take more radical action later.

As to my opening question, it's just me. I hate to get into authority battles, especially when I'm not the expert in a particular field. So when I turn down your bid, it's the honest truth that I don't want the wall vinyl or don't want to borrow the money at this time-- but the fundamental reason is that I'm not totally convinced by your arguments about hydraulic engineering. And I'm too nice-- or cowardly-- to say so.
*Made-up names


Barnaby Jones said...

Running a dehumidifier(s) should lower the humidity, but it may not fix your problem and even exacerbate it. If you have moisture coming through the walls (you can do that test of taping a piece of plastic to the wall for a day or two to see if you get any condensation on it) the dehumidifier may actually cause more moisture to come through your foundation walls.

I'm by no means a basement expert (though we did pay $10k to have our foundation lifted on piers), but it sounds like any of the remedies are just addressing the symptom of whatever the real problem is (perhaps rain gutters clogged, insufficient grading away from the house, etc).

St. Blogwen said...

Thanks for reminding me of the wall test. I did that three years ago and I can't recall the results!

It wouldn't hurt for me to run it again. And look at the gutter and positive drainage aspects, too. All part of Least Radical Measures first.

Kate H.

PS-- Cute cat!